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Franklin County Special Coverage

All Aboard

The Greenfield Amtrak stop

The Greenfield Amtrak stop will be busier this month with the restoration of Vermonter service and a second Valley Flyer train. Photo courtesy of Trains In The Valley

While a proposed east-west rail line between Pittsfield and Boston has gotten most of the train-related press recently, another proposal, to incorporate passenger rail service on existing freight lines between North Adams and Boston, has gained considerable momentum, with a comprehensive, 18-month study on the issue set to launch. Not only would it return a service that thrived decades ago, proponents say, but expanded rail in the so-called Northern Tier Corridor could prove to be a huge economic boost to Franklin County — and the families who live there.

 

State Sen. Jo Comerford has spoken with plenty of people who remember taking a train from Greenfield to North Station in Boston to catch Bill Russell’s Celtics.

They stepped on at 2:55 p.m. — one of as many as 12 boardings on any given weekday — and the train was already half-full after stops in Troy, N.Y., North Adams, and Shelburne Falls. Then they’d arrive at North Station at 5:15, “and you’d still have time for dinner before the game started,” Comerford said. “That was our reality in Franklin County in the 1950s.”

She shared those words last week at a virtual community meeting to discuss a comprehensive study, soon to get underway, of passenger rail service along the Northern Tier Corridor, a route from North Adams to Boston via Greenfield, Fitchburg, and other stops.

Ben Heckscher would love to see expanded train service in Western Mass.; as the co-creator of the advocacy organization Trains In The Valley, he’s a strong proponent of existing lines like Amtrak’s Vermonter and Valley Flyer, north-south lines that stop in Greenfield, as well as more ambitious proposals for east-west rail, connecting Pittsfield and Boston along the southern half of the state and North Adams and Boston up north.

Like Comerford, he drew on the sports world as he spoke to BusinessWest, noting that travelers at Union Station in Springfield can order up a ticket that takes them, with a couple of transfers, right to the gates of Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. “But there’s no button to push for the Red Sox,” Heckscher said. “It seems funny — we’re in Western Mass., and you can take a train to see the Yankees, but you can’t get to Fenway.”

But sporting events aren’t highest on his list of rail benefits. Those spots are dedicated to the positive environmental impact of keeping cars off the road, mobility for people who don’t own cars or can’t drive, and the overall economic impact of trains on communities and the people who live and work in them.

People want to access rail for all kinds of reasons, Heckscher said, from commuting to work to enjoying leisure time in places like New York, Philadelphia, and Washington without having to deal with navigating an unfamiliar city and paying for parking. Then there are medical appointments — many families living in Western Mass. have to get to Boston hospitals regularly, and don’t want to deal with the Mass Pike or Route 2 to get there.

“People are just really tired of driving Route 2 to Boston, especially at night or in the winter, and they want another way back and forth,” he said. “So they’re going to do a really robust study, and we’ll see what comes of that.”

In addition, as the average age of the population ticks upward, many older people might want to travel but be loath to drive long distances. In fact, that kind of travel is increasingly appealing to all age groups, Heckscher added. “You can ride the train, open your computer, take a nap. You can’t do that operating a car — at least not yet. So, rail definitely has the potential to become even more important.”

State Rep. Natalie Blais agrees. “We know the residents of Central and Western Mass. are hungry for expanded rail service. That is clear,” she said at last week’s virtual meeting. “We are hungry for rail because we know these connections can positively impact our communities with the possibilities for jobs, expansion of tourism, and the real revitalization of local economies.”

Ben Heckscher

Ben Heckscher

“People are just really tired of driving Route 2 to Boston, especially at night or in the winter, and they want another way back and forth.”

Makaela Niles, project manager for the Northern Tier study at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, said the 18-month study will evaluate the viability and potential benefits of rail service between North Adams, Greenfield, and Boston.

The process will document past efforts, incorporate market analysis (of demographics, land use, and current and future predicted travel needs), explore costs and alternatives, and recommend next steps. Public participation will be critical, through roughly seven public meetings, most of them with a yet-to-be-established working group and a few focused on input from the public. A website will also be created to track the study’s progress.

“We know it’s critical that we have stakeholders buying in,” said Maureen Mullaney, a program manager with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. “We look forward to having a very robust, inclusive participation process.”

 

Making Connections

Comerford has proposed rail service along Route 2 as a means for people living in the western counties along the corridor to more easily travel to the Greater Boston region, and a means for people living in the Boston area to more easily access destinations in Berkshire, Franklin, and Worcester counties. In addition to direct service along the Northern Tier, the service could provide connecting service via Greenfield to southern New Hampshire and Vermont.

The service would operate over two segments of an existing rail corridor. The first segment, between North Adams and Fitchburg, is owned by Pan Am Southern LLC. The second segment, between Fitchburg and Boston North Station, is owned by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). Any new service would be designed so that it does not negatively impact the existing MBTA Fitchburg Line commuter rail service or the existing freight rail service along the entire corridor.

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge asked Niles at last week’s meeting about potential tension between freight and passenger interests and whether commuter times will be thrown off by the needs of freight carriers.

“We’ll be looking at how those two intersect and make sure any additional service that could occur along the corridor doesn’t impact with freight or current commuter operations along the corridor,” Niles responded. “We’ll look at how all the services communicate and work together.”

Other potential study topics range from development of multi-modal connections with local bus routes and other services to an extension of passenger rail service past North Adams into Adams and even as far as Albany, although that would take coordination with officials in New York.

“My hope is that these communities would suddenly become destination spots for a whole new market of people looking to live in Western Massachusetts and work in Boston.”

Comerford first introduced the bill creating the study back in January 2019, and an amendment funding it was included in the state’s 2020 budget, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the start of the study until now.

And it’s not a moment too soon, she recently said on the Train Time podcast presented by Barrington Institute, noting that rail service brings benefits ranging from climate effects to economic development to impact on individual families who want to live in Franklin County but work in Boston (see related story on page 39).

With average salaries lower than those available in Boston often making it difficult to settle in Franklin County, availability of rail affects people’s job prospects and quality of life, she noted.

“My hope is that these communities would suddenly become destination spots for a whole new market of people looking to live in Western Massachusetts and work in Boston,” Comerford said, noting that, longer-term, she hopes to see greater business development in Western Mass. due to expanded rail, as businesses that need access to Boston, Hartford, and New York could set up shop here and access those cities without having to deal with traffic.

The bottom line, she said, is that it’s environmentally important to get cars off the road, but there are currently too many gaps in public transportation to make that a reality.

“There was a time when you could work in Boston and live in Franklin County,” she said. “I’ve heard story after story about what life was like up until about the late ’60s. It changed abruptly for them.

“When I was elected, one of the first things I researched was passenger rail along Route 2,” she went on. “I thought, ‘we have to explore starting this again. This is really important.’”

 

Chugging Along

Of course, east-west rail is only part of the story right now in Western Mass. Running north-south between New Haven and Greenfield are Amtrak’s Valley Flyer and Vermonter lines.

On July 26, Amtrak will restore a second train to its daily Valley Flyer service 16 months after cutting a train due to COVID-19. Southbound trains will depart Greenfield at 5:45 a.m. and 7:35 a.m., and northbound trains will return to the station at 10:23 p.m. and 12:38 a.m.

The Vermonter will return to service in Massachusetts on July 19. A long-distance train originating in Washington, D.C., it has gone no further north than New Haven since March 2020, also due to the pandemic. Amtrak is also reopening three other trains which offer service between New Haven and Springfield.

According to Amtrak, ridership on the Valley Flyer fell by more than half at the Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield stations in 2020, but the company is optimistic it will return to past numbers. That’s critical, since the Flyer is part of a DOT and Amtrak pilot program, which means its funding depends on its ridership. The Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC) will launch an advertising campaign this fall in an effort to boost interest in the service.

“The pandemic really tanked ridership — all forms of public transportation, actually,” said Heckscher, noting that most travelers felt much safer in their cars last year than among groups of people. “But since the vaccine came out, there’s been a comeback in ridership in the Valley Flyer service.”

MJ Adams, Greenfield’s director of Community and Economic Development, said the city has been waiting a long time for the Valley Flyer, “and we don’t want to be just a pilot.”

She feels the city, and the region, will benefit from a perception that people can get anywhere from the Greenfield area, and they may be more willing to move there while continuing to work in the city. Many of those are people who grew up in Franklin County and have a connection to it but still want to feel like they can easily get to work far away or enjoy a day trip without the hassle of traffic or parking.

There’s an economic-development factor related to tourism as well, Adams said. “People in New York City, Hartford, or New Haven can spend the day up here in the country — it’s not just us going down to New York, but people from New York who get on a train, enjoy a nice stay in rural Massachusetts, have a blast, and get back on the train to go home. It’s a two-way street.”

A recent report commissioned by Connecticut’s Capitol Region Council of Governments (CRCOG), in consultation with the PVPC, reinforced the idea of rail as an economic driver, finding a nearly 10-to-1 return on investments in passenger rail between New Haven and Worcester via the Hartford-Springfield metro area.

“In so many ways, the findings of this study confirm what we have seen with our own eyes for decades here in the Valley — regions connected by rail to the major economic hubs of Boston and New York City are thriving, while underserved communities like ours have lagged behind,” PVPC Executive Director Kimberly Robinson said. “We now know what the lack of rail has cost us economically, and this trend cannot continue further into the 21st century.”

Though she was speaking mainly of proposed routes along the state’s southern corridor, Heckscher believes in the economic benefits — and other benefits — of numerous projects being discussed across Massachusetts, including along Route 2.

“With rail, everyone has the ability to travel long distances,” he said — and the impact, while still uncertain in the details, could prove too promising to ignore.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Tom Bernard says myriad entities in North Adams, from restaurants to municipal offices to MCLA, have had to do business differently this year.

The last time BusinessWest spoke with Mayor Thomas Bernard for the Community Spotlight, about a year ago, he was talking up the city’s Vision 2030 plan, which was hatched in 2011 and is revisited regularly.

At a public information session last year, city leaders discussed the plan’s seven priorities — economic renewal, investment in aging infrastructure, creation of a thriving and connected community, intergenerational thinking, fiscal efficiency, historic preservation, and food access — and some specifics of what’s happening in each.

But 2020 has been about reacting as much as planning — though Bernard says communities need to do both, even during a pandemic.

“I look at my wonderfully organized and beautifully color-coded and phased planning documents from January and February, and I think about our February staff meeting where we discussed this COVID thing — ‘what could this mean for us?’” he recalled. “It’s been such a difficult year, but I can still point to some really great signs of progress.”

That includes continued movement toward adaptive reuse of old mill space, plans to renovate 67-year-old Greylock Elementary School, and a regional housing-production study that uncovered a need for more affordable housing, but more market-rate housing as well.

That said, it’s been a tough year for many businesses, too.

“People want to get the most bang for their buck without sacrificing quality, without sacrificing engagement, without sacrificing the memories they make. In that sense, North Adams continues to be attractive, and the Berkshires continue to be attractive.”

“Everyone has been struggling,” the mayor said. “Our restaurants did a terrific job early on in making the pivot to curbside and delivery, and they did fairly well when the weather was nice, and then a lot of them got really creative in how to expand their outdoor dining. The city and the licensing board tried to be as friendly and accommodating and make it as easy as possible for people,” Bernard noted, adding, of course, that winter will pose new hardships.

Municipal business continued apace as well, albeit sometimes with a creative, socially distanced flair.

For example, “as part of our property-disposition strategy, we did an auction of city properties, and we did it down at the municipal ballfield. There was plenty of space in the bleachers and stands for bidders, and the auctioneer was out on the field, taking bids. We brought people back to City Hall, one at a time, to do the paperwork. We went nine for 10 on properties we put up for auction.”

 

The Old College Try

Another success story took place at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) — simply because it made it through a semester of on-campus learning with no major COVID-19 outbreaks.

“We heard loud and clear that the campus experience is important,” said Gina Puc, vice president for Strategic Initiatives, noting, of course, that it’s a somewhat different experience than usual, with students alternating between the classroom and online learning in their residence halls, while only 550 of the 1,225 enrolled students this fall were on campus, all in single rooms.

“And it worked — our positivity rate was 10 times lower than the state’s,” she said. “We made it through the entire semester without having to alter our plans. The students were the main reason we were able to stay the course. We had incredible adherence to all the social-distancing and health and safety guidelines in place.”

The testing program was so successful, in fact, that MCLA was able to donate 130 leftover COVID tests to the city’s public schools, to perform asymptomatic testing on teachers and staff.

“They did such a great job with their testing program,” Bernard added. “Their positivity stayed low, contact tracing was good, and it helped that they were out before the holidays, so Thanksgiving didn’t play into it.”

Enrollment was down about 20%, but mostly among first-year students, reflecting a nationwide trend. “The 2020 high-school graduates didn’t even get their own graduation ceremonies, and it certainly disrupted their college plans,” Puc said.

But she’s confident the college will build off its unusual, but encouraging, fall semester and continue to attract students to North Adams. “We have an incredible combination of beauty and the kinds of cultural amenities usually found in urban areas,” she said.

Students studying the arts have plenty of local institutions at which to intern, but the college’s STEM center and the addition of a radiologic technology program in the health sciences reflect the regional growth of careers in those fields, as reflected by big players like General Dynamics, the Berkshire Innovation Center, and Berkshire Health Systems, and a host of smaller companies.

Tourism is a critical industry in North Adams as well, and visitor numbers were certainly down in 2020 overall, Bernard said, although MASS MoCA had a successful reopening and continues to do well. “The big advantage they have is space — you can be there in a socially distanced way. But, still, fewer people have come through this year.”

North Adams at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1878
Population: 13,708
Area: 20.6 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.64
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.83
Median Household Income: $35,020
Family Household Income: $57,522
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: BFAIR Inc.; Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts
* Latest information available

The exception is outdoor recreation, which has thrived across the Berkshires this year.

“As much as we’ve done incredible work because of our location, because of MASS MoCA and Williamstown Theatre Festival and Williams College and Barrington Stage and Berkshire Theatre and all these tremendous cultural resources, we don’t always appreciate how gorgeous it is out here,” Bernard said. “But, for a lot of people, that’s a huge draw.”

While the number of people visiting for foliage season may have been down from past years, he said he drove around the iconic Route 2 hairpin turn on a number of occasions, and always saw people stopping to take photos.

“Again, what a great, socially distanced way to appreciate the nature of the Berkshires in a year when you can’t engage in the area as fully as you might otherwise,” he said. “You can still get in the car, a motorcycle, or take a bike ride, and see it all. We know there’s demand for that.”

 

Hit the Road

He belives tourism in and around North Adams should rebound fine post-pandemic — if only because people’s dollars go further here, because of the mix of reasonably priced attractions and no-cost nature.

“People want to get the most bang for their buck without sacrificing quality, without sacrificing engagement, without sacrificing the memories they make. In that sense, North Adams continues to be attractive, and the Berkshires continue to be attractive,” he said.

As part of the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership, the city recently landed some funding for a comprehensive mapping and marketing effort of its trail systems. “It’s for people who want to visit, maybe go to a museum, have a good meal, stay a few days as tourists, but then they want to get out on the trails.”

Add it all up, and there’s plenty to look forward to in 2021.

“I’m bullish and optimistic about what spring and summer could bring,” Bernard went on. “I think there will still be caution, I think there will be wariness, but I think there’s also pent-up demand, too, and people will think about where they want to go and what they want to do.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor Thomas Bernard says North Adams has been investing in economic development, public safety, education, and a host of other areas.

Seven priorities, 43 goals, 95 policies, and 355 actions.

This tall list makes up the master plan for the city of North Adams. The Vision 2030 Plan was launched in 2011, and just this year, Mayor Thomas Bernard and cohorts revisited the plan to check up on the progress made to date.

“We had a really good session in October where we got some interesting suggestions for setting priority areas around marketing and promotion to move the needle on some of the economic developments,” he said.

In addition to the information session in October, Bernard says another will be held in early 2020 in which the town will tackle three things: review what has been accomplished so far, identify things that five years ago may have seemed urgent but are not as pressing now, and identify issues that have changed in the last five years.

The plan’s seven priorities — economic renewal, investment in aging infrastructure, creation of a thriving and connected community, intergenerational thinking, fiscal efficiency, historic preservation, and food access — are all currently being reviewed, and Bernard says these undertakings make for an exciting time in the city.

“There are some really great developments happening in a lot of different areas,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s a good chance to work in collaboration with a lot of people.”

Some of the more prominent developments include a project to build a much-needed new elementary school, updating zoning for the town, investing in public safety, and several projects that cater to younger children.

Bernard knows that, in order to be successful with new projects, the city must still take care of the older, foundational matters, and says North Adams has done a great job keeping track of both.

“We want to double down on the things we’ve already done, both this cultural development that’s happening, but also doing the foundational work to ensure that we can be successful so that we’re championing the big developments, we’re celebrating the jobs that are coming in, but we’re also making sure that the quality of life in neighborhoods is strong and solid,” he said.

“There are some really great developments happening in a lot of different areas. There’s a good chance to work in collaboration with a lot of people.”

Indeed, he says the overall feedback from the community has been extraordinarily positive, and mentioned one feeling in the city in particular: optimism.

Youthful Approach

That optimism, said Bernard, now going into his second term as mayor of North Adams, comes amid an increasing number of investments in economic development, public safety, and other key areas.

But you can’t move forward without looking back, so one big goal is investing in the youth and education sector, which includes the renovation of a very old elementary-school building.

Just a few weeks ago, Bernard and Superintendent of Schools Barbara Malkas visited the Massachusetts School Building Authority and were invited into eligibility for consideration of the reconstruction of Greylock Elementary School — a building that is 70 years old.

North Adams at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1878
Population: 13,708
Area: 20.6 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.62
Commercial Tax Rate: $40.67
Median Household Income: $35,020
Family Household Income: $57,522
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Crane & Co.; North Adams Regional Hospital; BFAIR Inc.
* Latest information available

“If we’re able to be successful in the feasibility phase, then we’re invited to proceed forward, and we can put the funding plan together,” said Bernard. “It really will set the course for elementary education in the city for the next 50 years.”

Other investments for the youth population in the city include a splash park and a skate park. While Bernard acknowledged North Adams is an aging community and its leaders are always thinking about what it means to be age-friendly, he sees a lot of energy and — here’s that word again — optimism when it comes to investing in the younger population.

“What this splash park and the other main investment, which was a skate park, has done is create community engagement, excitement, energy, vibrancy, and a sense of optimism that comes from things that are youth-focused,” he said.

On the economic-development side, Dave Moresi, a local developer, recently embarked on a mill project that celebrated its grand opening this past June. Bernard said Moresi bought the mill in mid-2017, and it already has more than 50 businesses inside, including a financial-services office, a mental-health clinician, a coffee roaster, a gym, a hair salon, and much more.

“I think this speaks to a couple things,” said Bernard. “It speaks to the quality of work that Dave and his team do, but it also speaks to this moment that we’re in, bringing it back full circle to this energy, excitement, and potential.”

Moresi also purchased a school building the city no longer uses and is turning it into residential apartments.

Adding to that excitement are two enabling projects that have occurred over the past year. Bernard said bringing life into the downtown area continues to be a challenge, so a parking study was done to look at what assets and needs are necessary if the city were to attract additional housing and development. North Adams also updated its zoning map to reflect current conditions — a process that hadn’t been tackled since the late ’50s to early ’60s.

With all this activity going on, the city has also been investing in public safety. Just this year, Lt. Jason Wood was appointed as the new police chief for North Adams. In addition, the city added its first hybrid vehicle to the city fleet and is working on adding a hybrid cruise, which would make it the first city in Western Mass. to do so.

Forward Momentum

While North Adams still faces economic and socioeconomic challenges, like all cities do, the mayor feels optimistic that the community is on the path for success.

“We continue to be in an exciting time for North Adams, and I think more and more people are picking up on it, whether that’s visitors who are coming here or whether it’s longtime residents who are seeing some of these developments and being really excited about it,” Bernard said. “We have a lot of work to do to make sure we stay on an even keel.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]